Pokemon Go has taken the District by storm, and real-life Pikachu are serving as lightning rods for meet-ups along the Mall and for playtime at bars. The opportunities to collect items near the game’s Pokestops and to fight trainers at gyms, however, appear to be fewer east of the Anacostia River.
A new analysis by the D.C.-based Urban Institute finds that Pokestops are concentrated in the city’s predominately white neighborhoods. The think-tank used census figures to extrapolate that result from data available through Ingress, a location-based game released earlier by Niantic, the company that produced Pokemon Go.
“Though Pokémon GO has not made its geographic data publicly available, it is possible to estimate the number of Pokéstops and gyms using maps of ‘portals’ from Pokémon GO’s gaming predecessor, Ingress,” authors Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini explain. “Ingress used to allow players to suggest relevant portal locations in their areas, but because Ingress players tended to be younger, English-speaking men, and because Ingress’s portal criteria biased business districts and tourist areas, it is unsurprising that portals ended up in white-majority neighborhoods.”
But wait: Can’t this disparity be easily accounted for by variations in the District’s population density and number of young people by census tract? (A quarter of D.C.’s residents live on only 7 percent of its total area, after all.) Not so, the authors note: After factoring in these components, it seems that Pokestops and gyms become more prevalent in the game as an area’s percentage of whites rises. On average, there are approximately 60 portals (a proxy for Pokemon Go stops) in white-dominated neighborhoods and fewer than 30 in black-dominated ones, according to the analysis.
“Clusters of portals are clearly evident in and around the National Mall and other D.C. monuments, but removing these nonresidential areas has no effect on our findings,” the authors add.
‘OK, but a game is just a game,’ you may be thinking. Yes and no: The larger take-away from this apparent lack of geographical inclusivity, Kooragayala and Srini argue, is that decidedly less-virtual public spaces like parks and museums suffer when marginalized communities aren’t made a part of the planning process that governs them. So it’s not just about being less able to collect Pokeballs and Hyper Potions in Southeast.
City Desk has reached out to Niantic for comment on the Urban Institute’s findings and will update this post if we hear back. You can read the full analysis here.